SPRING HILL — Margaret Ortiz hobbles on a cane, the result of a 2008 hip surgery. She needed help around the house and offered Justin Powers $60 to mop, do the dishes and laundry.
A friend had recommended Powers, and Ortiz said he seemed like a "nice young man." She'd pay him with her disability check.
Powers, 29, was polite, she said. And he took a liking to her dog Jason, a fluffy red Shiba Inu with perky ears and a tightly wound tail. He offered to buy Jason for $150.
"I said no because I paid $1,300," she said. "I knew the price was way too much. But I guess I thought of him as a legacy of my dad who died recently."
Three weeks ago, as Powers left after a cleaning job, Jason bolted out the front door.
"I told Justin, 'I'll go get my keys so I can look for him,' " Ortiz said. "But I went outside and Justin was gone."
On the phone, Ortiz asked Powers if he'd seen Jason. She asked him again when he came back to clean. He said no, but she was suspicious.
"He knew I was looking for the dog," she said. "He knew I was spending hours in the car, putting up posters, calling animal shelters. I even put out a doggie Amber alert."
Alex, Ortiz's 11-year-old daughter, dreamt that Jason was locked in a small, scary room, she said.
"I was hoping he was dead or with somebody nice, because I didn't like to think about the fact that he might be wandering," she said.
On Monday, Ortiz called the Nantucket Cove Apartments, where Powers lives. She asked a manager to keep an eye out for Powers and the dog. Soon, the manager called Ortiz. Powers was in front of his apartment — walking a dog.
Ortiz called the Hernando Sheriff's Office.
Deputies knocked on Powers' apartment door and found Jason. He wore a new collar and a camouflage bandana around his neck. He even had a new doggie bed.
Powers said he had planned to return Jason, deputies reported, but he could not explain why he had lied or kept the dog more than three weeks.
Powers, who had earlier this year been charged with possession of prescription drugs, was arrested and charged with grand theft. He remained in the county jail Wednesday on $1,500 bail.
When Jason was returned to Ortiz, "He jumped into Alex's arms,'' she said. "And he chowed down on his dog food."
Brittany Alana Davis can be reached at email@example.com, or at (352) 848-1432.